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Featured Guest Speaker

Don Dauterman, President
Durametal, Portland, OR

Posted: February 8, 1998

On Capturing Core Competency Knowledge in a Data Base
(Message emailed to Rick Dove 1/20/98 with Reply on 1/21/98)


From: "Dauterman, Don"
To: Rick Dove
Date: Tue, 20 Jan 1998

Your article in the December 1997 issue of Automotive Manufacturing & Production hit a strong chord with me [Essay #36, Managing Core Competency Knowledge].

Our company serves a niche market in the Pulp and Paper industry. We make an expendable wear product using the casting and machining process. Our success has been built around being able to evaluate a customer's specific product needs (the final pulp or paper) and then modify the design of our expendable wear product to meet his specific process requirements - which usually means improving output, improving quality, or lowering energy costs.

To put this into perspective, the niche we serve is over $US 100 million world wide - it is not a huge consumer product market. Durametal is one of three major suppliers. Two are located in North America and one in Europe. All three supply the worldwide market with similar channels of distribution.

Unfortunately, the 'body of knowledge' about all the variables involved in these process improvement issues is quite broad. Developing the skills to do this activity well usually takes a long time, is expensive to develop, and therefore is hard to get. Our firm's success is built around the knowledge base of a few 'gurus' who seem to have a better understanding of the process variables and the product application. Their knowledge is becoming a scarce and valuable resource as our firm grows.

Enter the computer age. Now we have a group of people on our staff who believe we can "capture the critical body of knowledge that has made us successful" and "replicate" it. However, I have major reservations about the potential success of this vision.

Many of our sales staff represent multiple product lines. They don't have the time, nor in my opinion the inclinations, to really devote their energies to becoming 'gurus'. Yet this is the marketing model that has brought us our success.

I have a hard time visualizing a sales guy working all day, traveling half the night, pulling into his motel, having dinner, and then rushing up to his room to plug in his portable PC to "review the call reports from other salesmen who have customers or applications like his".

On top of that, someone, like the salesman we are talking about, has to write all the call reports that are going into the "knowledge base". When are they going to have time to do that?

So I have questions, and would like to hear your thoughts about them. What kind of information is really critical? Is it necessary to have "real time" data from the field to plan our programs and implement our actions? I'm concerned that we are starting to think like the old fashioned banks, and we are going to inadvertently let 'back office' administrative issues drive our effective strategies. I could see us wasting a lot of time and energy designing and implementing a system to gather knowledge that in the long run may not provide us much important leverage in interfacing with the buying market.

  • What has been your experience with this issue?
  • Are there any typical ground rules coming out of early efforts along these lines that can give us an indication of what to focus on or avoid if we choose to go ahead with this plan?
  • Perhaps more importantly, are there any criteria for determining when and what kind of "core" knowledge should be generated? Certainly having more of the sales staff knowledgeable about the basics is good, but if they can call the 'guru' and get the data they need to make a product recommendation, why should they spend the time to learn core issues that may become obsolete in the near future anyhow?

My apologizes if this is a bit rambling, but I would appreciate any insight you can give me in this area. If there are some books or articles we should review to expand our vision on this issue I would be interested in them too.

Donald Dauterman, President
Durametal, Portland, OR

========= Reply =========================
From: Rick Dove
To: "Dauterman, Don"
Date: Wed, 21 Jan 1998

I couldn't help but notice your use of quotation marks around certain phrases. I presume these are part of a plan suggested by your Information Technology people.

I consider information and knowledge to be two very different things. Knowledge involves a human being and implies useful understanding. Reading words on paper or recalling them from a data base does not necessarily convey understanding. The danger that reuse of "information" (rather than knowledge) caries is that it can be incorrectly applied. It's popular today to talk about computer repositories of information as knowledge bases - but knowledge (so far) is only contained in the human brain - as interpretive understanding.

Gurus are not easy to create - their knowledge is at the level of true insight. Insight is rarely developed by reviewing information - even well described information. As a result, few people are what we call gurus - it's how they're wired that's different - and that happened at birth.

The major consulting firms, like Arthur Andersen, have all developed internal "knowledge bases" to assist both their sales presentation and final presentation activities. They inventory prior overhead proposal presentations and end-of-contract presentations. A friend of mine was in charge of the technology knowledge base for one of these major firms. Basically he became a technical librarian, with responsibility for knowing what was in the data base and where it was - he also was responsible for making sure relevant material was deposited. The front-line people had no motivation to build a data base for someone else's use - they, like all commission-driven people, know how to optimize the application of their time to billings generation. Another problem: people looking for help generally had to consult with my friend to see if anything was available and where it was - it turns out to be rather hard to index these knowledge bases usefully. Unfortunately a lot of IT people would disagree with that last statement, but they aren't the users.

Another thought. Keep in mind that these big consulting firms employ MBAs. High performance people who have some facility with taking other people's presentation slides and adopting them to their own needs - and keep in mind what these firms sell - it's not hard tangible product like you deliver. This makes it easier for them to reuse other people's presentations, even if they don't know the original intent. Nevertheless, my friend has moved on to another position in the firm - partly because of the frustration and lack of a sense of accomplishment.

Another story. One of the major auto companies wanted to capture their design knowledge so that an engineer could consult past practice and not make the same mistakes again. One project to accomplish this attempted to put this info on CDs, and in my opinion had two fatal flaws: 1) it required an engineer to document his thought processes after doing the design, and 2) it required another engineer to actively seek the recorded wisdom of others. Neither of these is a natural act for an engineer. My belief: this is not a useful concept until the engineer's automated design tools automatically capture relevant information and automatically make it available to others when it is useful. Research work is being done in this area but little is available in commercial tools as yet.

My personal background is principally startups and turnarounds - in all executive capacities. My direct experience with attempting to drive (or simply augment) a sales force from a knowledge base has not been rewarding. I think like this - but many of my gifted sales people thought very differently. I have come close to losing some very good people in the past when I attempted to enforce a sharing of knowledge through any other means than verbal.

Don't drive the human issues with technologists. Technology can and must play many key supporting roles, but knowledge and its application is a human thing. I say this with a technology background: EE from Carnegie Mellon, Comp Sci Ph.D. candidate at Berkeley, initial career work in computer systems. At the same time I don't think much of the touchy-feely crowd of management practice either. I value an analytical knowledge-based approach to business, but I have come to understand that others don't process information the same way that I do.

The key, I believe, is to help people develop working insights - then they can make effective use of information. My own schooling, however, says that there is little known about insight development - people treat it like a natural ability that can't be taught. I disagree, and have been working on a process called "Realsearch" discussed in prior issues of the magazine series you ran across. You may find some answers here - or at least some paths to pursue. I recommend that you read: "Realsearch: A Framework for Knowledge Management and Continuing Education". See below for access information.

As to your concern about teaching people core knowledge that becomes obsolete too quickly: Insights stem from fundamental knowledge even below the level of core knowledge. An insight is a framework that changing information can be hung on. These fundamentals never become obsolete. If you can provide some basic insight patterns for your people they will become much more creative - and will be able to use information much more effectively.

You might check out our web site at, especially the library page, the link page, and the executive overview of "Realsearch". You might also check out the "Workshop" page and see if these might be helpful.

Recommended Reading:

You may also find some of the links on the link page under the Knowledge Management section informative.

In any event - you ask thoughtful questions - good luck.

Rick Dove, Chairman, Paradigm Shift International, 505-586-1536

Would you like to offer some thoughts or add to the dialog? Responses of general interest may be posted below. Send your comment to . IMPORTANT: Make sure the subject line of your message contains: Comment on Guest Speaker 2/98.

========= Reply =========================
From: (Bill Baker) Date: Tue, 10 Feb 1998
Don, you pose several very critical questions. I like the question posed by Verna Allee in her new book, "The Knowledge Evolution" ..."If Knowledge Management is the answer, what is the question?" It seems to me what needs to be done is to provide more "knowledge"...we used to call this "management by fact".... at the point of execution and/or decision. So somehow in your salesman example,we should ask what does the salesman need to know to make a better saleman???

========= Reply =========================
From: Tim Healy Date: Tue, 23 Jun 1998
Found your web page interesting. I have attached a few thoughts for your consideration. There are at least two very important agent technologies that bear upon effective use of k-bases..

In my humble opinion, knowledge databases need to be coupled with global discernment and attention management systems to be useful. By way of example, you are probably aware that the U.S. Army has a CALL (Center for Army Lessons Learned) organization. Its knowledge databases are populated with after-action reports (like sales ROCs) which simply ask for goals, actions, results and lessons learned.

As it turns out, no automatic searches (to my knowledge)are ever done automatically for opportunities to offer knowledge value. When the Bosnia situation arose, someone had to have an encounter of the most disagreeable sort with a land mine before Army personnel responded and used the K-base to develop a handbook about land mines.

Now if the system had discernment and attention management capabilities, it might, say, have "read the newspaper," understood there was an incipient brush war, discerned what information categories might have been critically relevant, determined who might have benefited from this knowledge, set up decision accountability chains, delivered whatever knowledge it had (and indicated deficiencies), looked for signs of compliance where they should have appeared based on the knowledge delivered, established ports for new or related information sources and perhaps set up other escalation and information delivery paths bases on the value of outcomes in relation to the expected value of knowledge delivered. (Sorry for the run-on sentence).

All of this would happen without stimulus intervention until, perhaps, attention and validation of interest had occurred and accountability became meaningful. At that point interactive and adaptive mechanisms, such as we know them today, might begin.

By the way, the comments about sales systems accord in some measure with what has happened here over the last decade. There is a solution, of course.

Tim Healy, Manager, IT Architecture, The Torrington Company, Torrington, CT, (860) 626-2448

========= Reply =========================
From:  (matt wang), Date: Wed, 10 May 2000 02:38:10 -0400 (EDT)
Thank you for your valuable imformation!

========= Reply =========================

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